I treated myself to a day at Canterbury Cathedral Archives the other day. (My other hobby is family history, and my great-grandfather was born and brought up in Canterbury). Towards the end of my day I requested the Vestry Minute Books for St Dunstan's, his father's parish - one for about 1824-1870 and the other covering 1780-1820. The lady at the desk said it might take a little longer than normal to bring the documents out because the usual person was away, but as it happened they were brought out to me only five minutes later.
I spent twenty minutes or so taking notes from the later one, and then carefully took the earlier book out of its protective box and opened it. As I looked at the first page I swear I stopped breathing and my heart rate doubled.
It was written in Secretary Hand. (That's the rather curly stuff you see on really old documents).
Now, I don't know when they stopped using Secretary Hand, but I do know it was rather earlier than 1780. They'd only given me the ORIGINAL PARISH REGISTER from FIFTEEN NINETY-FIVE (or thereabouts, shock does strange things to the memory).
I sat there for a few minutes just staring at it, and occasionally turning over a page very, very carefully. I was torn between: awe and wonder that I'd got to actually touch this book of parchment pages that was over four hundred years old; fear that I would inadvertently damage it or - irrational, I know - somehow lose it; and finally consternation that they would actually hand out such a document BY MISTAKE to someone who, for all they knew, would not know how to handle it. Which I don't, to be honest, but I do know enough to be careful and respectful and not put my hands on the actual writing.
See, the point is, you don't let people get their possibly grubby mitts on unique and irreplaceable old documents where there is an alternative. Like microfilm for example, the whole point of which is to make the information accessible while protecting the document itself.
OK, Canterbury Cathedral has documents dating back to like the ninth century or something, and quite possibly to them something only four hundred years old isn't so exciting. But anyone at all can visit the archives; all you have to do is show them some identification.
I'd always taken it for granted that documents like that were only for serious researchers who need to look at the originals. I shouldn't ever have got near it, and certainly never expected to.
But I'm so glad I did.